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Google is taking the wraps off a long-anticipated product that it views as one of its most important launches of the year, as the Internet giant continues its push to upload users to a future where their photos, spreadsheets and other data primarily live on the Internet "cloud" instead of a PC or some other device.
The launch of "Google Drive" has been a poorly kept secret in Silicon Valley, with the product name and a rough description of the online storage product widely circulated in recent weeks as Google has worked out the final bugs. Drive opened up to millions of users around the world Tuesday, allowing users to synch their files between PCs, smartphones and tablets.
But the success of Drive will ride largely on whether Google can differentiate its offering from already established fast-growing cloud storage startups that were in the market first, such as Dropbox and Box, as well as Microsoft's SkyDrive service and big consumer media competitors like Apple's iCloud and Amazon's Cloud Drive.
"At the heart of it, Google is about cloud computing _ letting people live on the cloud and get things done on the cloud," said Sundar Pichai, the Google executive who heads the company's Chrome browser and cloud apps efforts. "We want this to be the center of your online experience."
Existing Google Docs files, the centerpiece of Google's existing cloud storage offering, will move to the Google Drive service once users download apps and install the new service. Google will offer users up to 5 gigabytes of storage for free, and up to 25 gigabytes for $2.49 a month, with prices for larger amounts of data lower than many competitors.
But Pichai said Drive can differentiate itself from its competitors because it will leverage unique existing Google cloud services like its Goggles service _ a image-recognition search feature that can recognize millions of well-known objects such as the Eiffel Tower or Mount Everest, as well as the faces of some well-known people. That could allow a user who, for example, had forgotten to label thousands of old vacation photos from Paris or the Grand Canyon to dig them up with a Google search.
"The beauty of Drive is that when you put files on it, we can bring the power of the Google computing infrastructure behind that," Pichai said.
Drive will be able to search and index more than 30 types of files, including Adobe pdf files. Google is also opening up the service to independent software developers, meaning developers with ideas for specialized uses of a cloud storage and collaboration service will be able to build specialized apps. Drive also allows files to be shared and co-edited by anyone.
Still, Google has a problem. Since Apple launched the iPad two years ago, more and more people have needed to synch their data between many devices, and a growing number of people and companies have been using cloud services like Dropbox, which, according to comScore data, has seen its monthly traffic triple to 3.6 million users over the past year.
At the same time, Apple and Amazon can leverage their strength in music, books and other media to drive users to their cloud services.
"I wouldn't completely write them off, but I definitely feel that Google is late to the game," said Jesse Lipson, the founder and CEO of ShareFile, a cloud-based file-sharing service aimed at business users that now has more than 5 million users and which was acquired last year by Citrix.
Liz Conner, an analyst with the research firm IDC, said Google will also have to deal with the fact that millions of consumers have already uploaded their files to Dropbox, Box, SugarSync or other cloud services. "Most people, if they love Dropbox, I'm not sure they are going to rush out to join Google," she said.
Other users, she said, are not yet comfortable storing precious photographs or sensitive private data on the "cloud" - a metaphor for the vast network of Internet-connected servers that can be networked by big companies like Google, Amazon or Microsoft to run software or store data.
Still, Lipson noted, Google was also a late entry in search, email, maps and Web browsers, and its search engine, Gmail, Google Maps and Chrome browser have shunted many competitors aside. "They shouldn't be underestimated, coming in late," he said.
Like Dropbox, Google Drive integrates into the operating system of a Windows PC or a Mac, or an Android mobile device, meaning that one copy of a file is stored locally on each synched machine, along with a copy that is stored on the cloud. Google is developing a version for Apple's iOS mobile operating system that powers iPhones and iPads.
A user who downloads the Drive app and syncs their devices through the cloud will see their files automatically updated between devices each time they change a file in one location.
"To me at the crux of it, it's a way to live your online life, available to you wherever you go," Pichai said.